My Brain on NASCAR: A decade of racing with the Chase

I sometimes like to entertain myself by going back a few years and remembering all the negative things we said back in 2003, when Brian France first announced this new championship format, which people still insist on calling “NASCAR’s playoffs.”

Those who like to consider themselves racing purists felt that the Chase basically thumbed its nose at NASCAR’s long-standing tradition of rewarding consistency. Under the old system, it didn’t matter if a guy had won 15 races or none; if he finished the season with the most points, he was the champion, period.

While this was obviously a fair system – the team that got the most points won the title, which is usually how things work – it lacked suspense. There was no big, final game to seal the deal. There were occasions when we knew who the champion was before the season was even over; most recently in 2003, the year before the new format was implemented.

Matt Kenseth was a textbook model of consistency that year, posting an amazing 25 top 10 finishes, but only one win. By contrast, Ryan Newman won eight times, but lost the title to Kenseth. It had happened before – drivers have won championships with no wins at all – but something about that season set the powers-that-be to scratching their heads and admitting that something just didn’t seem right.

So the Chase was created. And of course, since we didn’t understand it yet, we bellyached about it. Friends of mine, even the ones with good sense, declared the Chase would “ruin NASCAR.” Yet somehow, NASCAR survived; go figure.

Oh, the naysayers are still there, and I can kind of understand how they feel – we have two drivers in this year’s Chase with no wins, while several who have visited Victory Lane are on the outside looking in – but isn’t that a compliment to the Chase? No system is perfect, but we do have a nice blend of consistency and victories, so I’m not sure how we can improve on that.

What the Chase has given us every year is Jimmie Johnson. Johnson is the only driver to make the Chase each season since 2004, and as you may have heard, he has won six of them. In a row. Johnson has often been described this year as a “man on a mission,” and he definitely looked the part during the Chase-opening Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 16. Johnson sat on the pole for the race and led the vast majority of the laps, but as the saying goes, he didn’t lead the only one that mattered.

That honor went to Brad Keselowski, who came on strong at the end of the day and won the race. And suddenly, the crowd around me was transformed from “Oh great, here we go again with Johnson, so what’s happening in the Panthers game?” to the biggest bunch of Keselowski fans I have ever seen in my life. Even Brad might not realize he’s so popular.

(On a side note, I remain confused on the issue of Jimmie Johnson’s unpopularity. I won’t go into a major JJ defense here, but I will say that I refuse to accept the excuse that the guy just wins too much. People never, ever got tired of seeing Dale Earnhardt or Richard Petty win championships, and they never would have.)

Watching Keselowski win races has become a much more common occurrence, and his willingness to speak his mind in interviews has endeared him to fans. He could definitely be the guy to earn Penske Racing its first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, although he might wear team owner Roger Penske out in the process.

“He won’t let me sleep, I’ll tell you that. I get Twitters; I’m a big texter now,” Penske said after the race. “He and I are talking all the time. I’ve got to get to my day job sometimes, I tell him.”

Keselowski hails from a racing family and has plenty of experience, but he has only been racing in the Cup Series fulltime since 2012. But numbers and time served do not tell an entire story. BK’s confidence, which walks a fine line and veers across it into brashness at times, has combined with his massive driving talent and go-for-broke attitude to make him, if not a beloved figure yet, at least a person of interest.

“I approach it as though I was a baseball player at the plate, and there’s a 100 MPH fastball coming at you all the time. But if I go down, I’m going to go down swinging the bat as hard as I can each and every time,” he said. “I’m not going to stare at the ball every time it goes by and be struck out.

“If that means I’ve got to work harder to go down in that manner, then that’s what it’s going to be … but it also means I’ve got a great shot at hitting that ball.”

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